The landscape is Swedish. The people have Swedish names. The newspapers are in Swedish. But, hang on: everyone has a British accent and speaks colloquial English! The disconnect in making an English-language version of Henning Mankell's popular Swedish detective novels, takes a bit of adjustment…
Of course, you don't bat an eyelid when Germans speak English in war movies, do you? But at least they put on accents and mispronounced their w's. Maybe the BBC were worried that British actors could only base their accents on Sven Goran Eriksson and (heaven forbid) the Muppets' Swedish Chef, thus undermining the whole project? We have probably been spared an unintentional comedy disaster with this decision, so be grateful.
Kenneth Branagh plays Ystad's Inspector Kurt Wallander; another telly 'tec with a drink problem, miserable manner, and a dysfunctional family. Tired clichés? Or common stereotype for a good reason?
The first episode of a £7 million trio, "Sidetracked" saw Wallander investigating the self-immolation of a 15-year-old girl in the middle of a rape-seed field. The tragic pointlessness of the crime immediately gets under Wallander's skin, just as a series of motiveless crimes snare his attention: three unrelated men, killed by blows to the head with a small axe, who were then scalped. It seems there's a serial-killer on the loose, with a strange fascination with Native American Indians…
At home, Wallander is getting used to living alone as part of a trial separation from his wife, with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) on hand to help him adjust to a bachelor lifestyle. His estranged father Povel (David Warner) is also a concern, as the curmudgeonly painter's mental faculties are failing. Likewise hopes for a reconciliation between father and son.
This 90-minute opener was interesting for a variety of reasons, not least the superb performance of Branagh and (more unexpectedly) David Warner. Murder-mysteries built around one particular detective are at the mercy of good scripts and a strong lead performance, and Wallander's combination of Menkell's source novel and renowned thespian Branagh is a great partnership. It made me wonder why Branagh hasn't headlined a major TV series before now; for an actor trained for the stage, he's very good at delivering small moments for television. Quite a few scenes relied on the quiver of a teary eyelid, or a pursed smile, to make their point -- as Wallander's an introverted man of quiet dignity, loneliness, and few words.
The foreign location lent immediate unpredictability, as British viewers can't second-guess the plot's developments thanks to a working knowledge of local culture, geography, societal issues, crime rates, etc. A likeminded series set in Edinburgh, London, Los Angeles or New York has viewers making immediate preconceptions… but Ystad? Do they even have crime in Sweden? Isn't it all sauna's, ABBA and Ikea?
To be honest, "Sidetracked" had a plot that could have taken place anywhere -- such was the universal nature of the crimes, character types and motivations. But at least Wallander brings its Scandinavian uncertainty to bare, and future mysteries will hopefully utilize Sweden's cultural differences.
The story didn't quite fill the feature-length running time, sagging in the third quarter a bit, but Branagh kept you watching as the story slowly came together in the last twenty minutes. Sadly, most of the supporting cast were underserved with material (particularly Wallander's bland police colleagues), and the episode fell prey to the truism that "the most recognizable guest-star will turn out to be the killer."
Overall, I heartily recommend Wallander on the fine performance of Branagh and the reputation of dark Swedish thrillers alone. It's not going to revolutionize the genre, but it's a beguiling switch of locale and temperament when seen through British eyes. The interior décor of buildings carry a strange '70s minimalist vibe, the exteriors are bleak and atmospheric (photographed brilliantly by 28 Days Later's Anthony Dod Mantle), and the story was knotty stuff that didn't shy away from a few gruesome moments.
30 November 2008 BBC1, 9pm
Writer: Richard Cottan Director: Philip Martin
Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Kurt Wallander), Sarah Smart (Anne-Britt Hoglund), Tom Beard (Svedberg), Tom Hiddleston (Martinsson), Richard McCabe (Nyberg), Sadie Shimmin (Lisa Holgerssen), Linda Wallander (Jeany Spark), David Warner (Povel Wallander) & Gertrude Wallander (Polly Hemmingway)